10 progressive Acts which have helped India remain a free, democratic society

By A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) – Own work, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49129197

For a democracy as diverse and large as India to survive seven decades of independence, it requires some tough and progressive Acts and Laws to hold it together. On that front, India has done a remarkable job in drawing and passing some of the most progressive Acts and Laws in the world. However, where the country has lagged in many ways is in spreading awareness and implementation.

As India celebrates its 71st Independence Day, we take a look 10 progressive Acts that have been passed in the country since Independence:

Representation of the People Act, 1950 and 1951: The landmark act which set the ball rolling to bring in Universal Adult Franchise in the country is among the most important Acts that have been passed in the seven decades of Indian Independence. The Representation of the Peoples Act came into force in 1950, laying down the allocation of seats and delimitation of constituencies, the methodology for preparing of electoral rolls and the manner of filling seats in the Council of States.

The 1951 Act by the same name laid down the methodology for the conduct of elections of the Houses of Parliaments and to the Houses of Legislatures in each state, to the declaration of the results. A number of amendments been implemented in the process of conducting elections since, including reducing the canvassing time from a  month to a  fortnight and decreasing the minimum age from 21 to 18. However, the fact that free and fair elections, without any discrimination, have been conducted right from the birth of the nation is a great achievement in itself.

Special Marriage Act, 1954: Enacted in 1954, the Special Marriage Act allowed for a special form of marriage for people who had renounced their religion altogether, and for those who wished to inter-marry. The marriage allows any person of Indian nationality residing in India or abroad, irrespective of caste, religion or community, to marry outside their caste/religion.

Unlike other religious marriages, a special marriage does not follow any religious rituals, and only requires that the parties file a notice expressing their intention to marry each other with the Marriage Registrar at least 30 days prior to the date of marriage.  The Act, which replaced an older Act III from 1872, covers registration of special marriages and divorces in such cases, as well. In a country which is still caught up in caste and religion, this progressive Act encourages love without any communal boundaries.   

Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955: In 1950, the Constitution of India officially abolished one of the most heinous practices which were prevalent in India – untouchability, through Article 17 of the Constitution of India.   It took the Government five more years to enact the Law penalising untouchability, with the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955.

The Law, however, had many loopholes, and so from 1976, the law was revamped as Protection of Civil Rights Act. It still did not do much to address violent crimes against members of the SC/ST community. Hence, in 1989, the Rajiv Gandhi Government passed the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 to deal with violence being perpetrated against people in the name of caste. However, cases of violence against people on the basis of caste still exists.

Right to Information Act, 2005: For any democracy to function smoothly, transparency, access to information and accountability in administrative matters are vital. These were addressed in the landmark Right to Information Act, 2005, which replaces the erstwhile Freedom of Information Act, 2002.

Under the Act, any citizen of India has the right to request information from any public authority which is required to reply within 30 days. It also requires that public agencies make their records available digitally so that people have minimum need to specifically request for it.

While it has been hailed as one of the most progressive transparency Acts in the world, lack of awareness, poor implementation and delays have led to the Act not being as successful as it should.

Protection of Children From Sexual Abuse (POCSO) Act, 2012: In a country where crime against children are common, and on the increase, the Protection of Children From Sexual Abuse (POCSO) Act, 2012, is notable in addressing sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children. The Act defines different forms of abuse, which includes both penetrative and non-penetrative assault, harassment and pornography. The law is gender neutral and requires that sexual abuse be reported. Lack of awareness and social stigmas attached in sexual abuse cases, unfortunately, has led to many not using the Law.

Right of Chldren to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2010: On April 1, 2010, India became one among 135 countries to make education a fundamental right for every child, when it enacted the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education Act (RTE). The Act provides for free and compulsory education for every child between the ages 6-14 and also specifies minimum norms in elementary schools. It also makes it compulsory for all private schools to reserve 25 percent of seats to children based on economic and caste based reservations.

According to the World Bank specialist for India, Sam Carlson, the RTE is the first legislation in the world which puts the onus of enrolling children in school on the Government. The Act has, unfortunately, come under criticism for being hastily drafted. Lack of awareness and difficulty in obtaining the necessary documents has also held back enrollment under the Act.

Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2013: In a country where corruption is rampant across all levels of the public and private sectors, a Bill to look into corruption charges was much needed. India got its Act together in 2013, after it passed Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2013. The Lokpal Bill covers all sectors of public servants, including the Prime Minister, but excludes the armed forces. The Bill had been floating around for five decades, with the idea of an ombudsman to overlook an anti-corruption body, first being mooted in 1963.

While the Lokpak Bill was first introduced in Parliament in 1968, it was not passed. Since then, eight attempts had been made to pass it till 2011, but none succeeded. A Bill amending the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013, was passed in 2016. The Amendment did away with the time limit for public servants to furnish details of their assets, which as per the original Bill was by July 31st, every year.

National Food Security Act, 2013: Ensuring ‘access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices’ and linking food with the right a life of dignity, the National Food Security Act, 2013, aims at providing subsidised food grains to two-thirds of the country’s population.

The Mid-Day Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Services and the Public Distribution Scheme, all fall within its ambit. It also entitles pregnant women, lactating mothers and certain categories of children to daily free cereals. Though hailed as being progressive, the Bill has also been one of the most debated and contentious ones, with parties pushing for an increase in entitlements, among others.

Mental Healthcare Bill, 2016: On March 2017, India took a step towards progressive healthcare when it introduced the Mental Healthcare Bill, 2016, which aims at removing the stigmas associated with mental illness, and ensuring a right to live with dignity.

The Bill provides for access to mental health care for people while ensuring that they are not discriminated against. The Bill provides for free treatment of people with mental illness, living below the poverty line, and for those who are homeless. It also ensures the right to confidentiality of people suffering from mental illness and empowers the government to set up the Central Mental health Authority at the Centre – level and the State Mental Health Authority, at the state level.   The Bill has been lauded as being patient centric, and one which accepts that mental illness is not a permanent state, but one that can be cured if provided access to adequate healthcare.

Goods and Services Act 2017: The country saw the biggest reform of its indirect taxation policy since independence, when the Goods and Services Act 2017, was launched at midnight on July 1, 2017. With the passing of the GST Act, the government moved a step towards realising the ‘One Nation-One Tax Market’ goal. The tax reform process started three decades ago, in 1986, with the introduction of the Modified Value Added Tax (MODVAT). The GST replaced a number of former taxes and levies such as the central excise duty, services tax, additional customs duty, surcharges, state-level value added tax and Octroi.